Image: Joshua S. Kelly
Image: Joshua S. Kelly
“Some people are gay. Get over it!” That was the message lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall presented in 2007. Sadly, some people just can’t get over it. And with the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Russia, where the government is coming down hard on the country’s gay population – including passing an anti-“gay propaganda” law and proposing a bill to deny gay parents custody of their children – homosexuality in professional sport has once again become a major subject of debate.
When the 2022 FIFA World Cup was awarded to Qatar, where homosexuality is still illegal, FIFA president Sepp Blatter joked that traveling gay fans “should refrain from any sexual activities.” Meanwhile, Croatia’s now-deceased president of soccer Vlatko Marković said, “Thank goodness only healthy people play football [soccer].”
Unbelievably, perhaps, homosexuality remains a taboo issue in the world of professional sport. Here we look at ten trailblazing gay athletes who came out while they were still competing, challenging the prejudices that plague the sporting arena.
Image: Noah Salzman
10. Robbie Rogers – Soccer
In May 2013 U.S. soccer player Robbie Rogers made history as the first openly gay athlete to play Major League Soccer. Following a disappointing, injury-plagued season with English Championship side Leeds United and a brief loan spell with English League One side Stevenage, Rogers announced his retirement in February 2013. The pressure he felt as a gay soccer player was the reason behind his decision, he later revealed. Although technically he had been released at the time, Rogers became only the second soccer player in Britain to come out as gay. Then in May 2013 Rogers made a successful return when he signed for the LA Galaxy, and he is optimistic about reclaiming his U.S. national squad place in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Image: Marissa Gawel
9. Jason Collins – Basketball
NBA center Jason Collins came out on April 29, 2013, publicly announcing his sexuality with a brave, self-penned cover story for the May issue of Sports Illustrated. Amazingly, he became the first openly gay athlete to compete in a team sport in one of the big four major U.S. leagues. Commenting on Collins’ revelation, President Obama said, “I had a chance to talk to him yesterday. He seems like a terrific young man. And I told him I couldn’t be prouder of him. One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality.” Collins has also explained that he chose to wear the number 98 as a sign of solidarity with Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998. As of July 2013, Collins was a free agent, but the 34-year-old has said that he’s not done yet and is looking to sign a new contract.
8. Gareth Thomas – Rugby Union
Gareth Thomas’ legacy as an outstanding Welsh rugby player is undeniable; during his career, the ex-British Lions and Wales captain held Welsh records as the most capped player and the player with the most tries (equivalents to touchdowns). But the fact that he also came out in what is an extremely tough and macho sport is equally remarkable. Thomas struggled in private with his sexuality for years and even admitted that he had contemplated killing himself. After the breakdown of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Jemma, Thomas shared his secret with then Wales coach Scott Johnson, who decided that Thomas needed the support of his teammates. At first Thomas was terrified about how his peers would react, but he was overwhelmed by the support he received from long-time friends and fellow Welsh internationals Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, who simply said, “We don’t care. Why didn’t you tell us before?”
Image: Unknown author
7. Justin Fashanu – Soccer
In 1981, Justin Fashanu became the first black soccer player to merit a £1,000,000 transfer fee when Nottingham Forrest signed him from Norwich City. Sadly, though, Fashanu’s story as a trailblazing gay athlete has a tragic ending. The player came out publicly in a sensational 1990 interview with U.K. tabloid The Sun, which ran the headline, “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.” The reaction to the story was widely negative, with former teammates condemning Fashanu, and even his own brother, also a professional soccer player, publicly renouncing him.
After his retirement from the game, Fashanu moved to the United States in 1998 to coach new USL A-League team Maryland Mania. In April the same year, in the wake of an alleged sexual assault, Fashanu fled the U.S. and returned to England. The following month, on May 2, 1998, Fashanu took his own life. His suicide note said that the sexual act relating to the alleged assault was consensual but that he feared he would not receive a fair trial owing to his sexuality. Highlighting just how rife homophobia is in soccer, offensive chants about Fashanu are still directed towards Norwich City fans today.
6. Glenn Burke – Baseball
To date, Glenn Burke is still the only Major League Baseball player known to have come out to his teammates while he was still active in the league, and he was also the first player to publicly acknowledge his sexuality. Burke – who could have also had a career in basketball – was outed publicly by a former romantic partner in a 1982 Inside Sports article, although he had already played his last MLB game three years prior to that. Tragically, though, after his career ended, Burke fell into drugs and ended up living rough for several years. He passed away on May 30, 1995, after a battle with AIDS. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Burke is remembered as a joker and is credited with co-inventing the universal gesture of awesomeness that is the high five – in 1977, when celebrating his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker ending the regular season with his 30th home run. Burke also competed in the 1982 and 1986 Gay Games.
Image: Lance Richardson
5. Matthew Mitcham – Diving
In 2008 Australian diver Matthew Mitcham took a 32-foot (10-meter) plunge into the history books when he earned the highest-ever Olympic score for a single dive. Mitcham’s boyfriend could be seen cheering him on passionately in the crowd as the young diver overcame a huge point deficit to beat Chinese diver Zhou Lüxin and win the gold with his final dive of the competition. Amazingly, Mitcham became the first male Australian diver since 1924 to secure an Olympic gold medal. He came out publicly shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.
Speaking about his sexuality, Mitcham said, “I don’t see sexuality as influencing my beliefs or opinions or perceptions of anybody, whether they’re gay, straight, bi, trans, experimental, I don’t care. I see it as a very uninfluential factor in people.” After his Olympic success, Mitcham became something of a gay role model, and in 2009 and 2010, Australian gay and lesbian website Samesame listed him amongst the 25 Most Influential Gay Australians.
Image: Eric Schwabel
4. Ian Roberts – Rugby League
High-profile Australian rugby league star Ian Roberts began his professional career in 1986 with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and went on to play for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the North Queensland Cowboys. He also represented New South Wales and indeed the Australian national team. In 1995 Roberts came out in public and quickly became a poster boy for gay Australia. The reaction from his fellow players was generally positive, and the message was be “true to yourself.” After he retired from professional rugby in 1998, Roberts – who has also worked as a model and dabbled in reality TV – studied acting at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. In 2005 he had a small role, alongside Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, in movie Little Fish. And in 2006 he popped up as Lex Luther’s muscle-bound henchman Riley in Superman Returns.
Image: Greg Hernandez
3. J. P. Calderon – Volleyball
California-born pro volleyball player, model and reality TV star John Paul Calderon came out publicly in February 2007, after Instinct asked him to appear on its cover. The magazine obliges all of its cover stars to be out and proud, and Calderon used the opportunity to announce his sexuality. “All of my fears, everything that I was scared of… it was the complete opposite,” Calderon said. “It’s been great. All of my friends, the volleyball world, absolutely everybody has been supportive. No one has shut me out.” Calderon started playing volleyball professionally in 2004 and has also worked as a volleyball coach. He came to reality TV fame following his appearance on Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006 and has since gone on to appear in the last three seasons of reality TV show Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency.
2. Anton Hysén – Soccer
In 2011 English-born Swedish soccer player Anton Hysén became only the second professional soccer player ever to publicly announce his homosexuality. Hysén came out in a March 2011 interview with Swedish soccer magazine Offside, and the same month he also appeared on a Swedish debate show on the subject “Can gays play football [soccer] too?” Furthermore, in an interview with The Guardian that same year, Hysén said, “If there’s anyone afraid of coming out they should give me a call.” When The Guardian asked Hysén about whether he sees himself as a gay role model, he replied, “Not at all. There’s nothing to be a role model for – you’re gay, it’s not a big thing.” The 22-year-old currently plays for Swedish Football Division 1 side Utsiktens BK and has represented Sweden at under-17 level.
1. Darren Young – Wrestling
In 2013 Darren Young (real name Fredrick Douglas Rosser III) rocked the oiled-up, spandex-clad world of professional wrestling when he became the first active WWE star to come out publicly. Encouragingly, the WWE was very supportive of Young’s decision, as were a number of his peers and the media. Following his disclosure through tabloid website TMZ, Young’s character was even switched from being a heel (villain) to a face (good guy). However, the jury is still out on whether this support makes up for the way the company has approached homosexuality in the past. Long-time WWE fans will remember the exuberant, sexually ambiguous 1990s heel Goldust (played by Dustin Rhodes), who made fans and opponents alike uncomfortable with his antics as “The Bizarre One” – with fellow wrestler Jerry Lawler even calling Goldust a “flaming fag” in a 1997 promo.